Innovation: How much freedom is too much?

big skyIt’s a constant conversation among clients and colleagues: How big-sky should your thinking be when it comes to innovation?

As a creative person, I am a fan of the open canvas in many settings to avoid the shackles of legacy thinking. Analyze a particular problem, and brainstorm solutions regardless of limitations. Work to develop an innovative answer, and then figure out how to implement the idea within the resources of the organization.

But there is an inherent weakness to this approach. It often fails the reality test. Cautious colleagues may raise resource obstacles to avoid implementing any version of the innovation. Others may use the culturally based “well, that’s not who we are” rebuttal (and its ostrich cousin, “we already do that”) to derail the outside-the-box solution. In classroom settings, I’ve found that many students — graduate and undergraduate — recoil at the thought of a boundless assignment in which they develop the framework.

An alternate approach is to start with a strategic exercise such as a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis to identify organizational constraints before brainstorming. By putting borders on the creative canvas, it controls the chaos and inspires focused solutions.

In his autobiography “Life,” Stones guitarist Keith Richards describes the creative focus brought by the eight-track recording from the band’s “Sticky Fingers” recording sessions:

The thing about eight-track was it was punch in and go. And it was a perfect format for the Stones. You walk into that studio and you know where the drums are going to be and what they sound like. Soon after that, there were sixteen and then twenty-four tracks, and everyone was scrambling around these huge desks. It made it much more difficult to make records. The canvas becomes enormous, and it becomes much harder to focus.

At the time, the band was touring incessantly. They had three days of recording time at the famous studio in Muscle Shoals, Ala., and with the focus inspired that tight span, they recorded “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses,” two classics of the band’s canon.

What have you found in your experience? Do you find unbridled brainstorming generates the best solutions? Or do constraints inspire the most effective answers?